Human impact has created a 'plastic planet,' research shows

Human impact has created a 'plastic planet,' research shows
Keyworth plastic bottle. Credit: University of Leicester

Planet Earth's oceans and lands will be buried by increasing layers of plastic waste by the mid-century due to human activity, according to research led by the University of Leicester.

A new study, which has been published in the journal Anthropocene, examines the evidence that we now live in the Anthropocene, an epoch where humans dominate the Earth's surface geology, and suggests that the surface of the planet is being noticeably altered by the production of long-lasting man-made materials, resulting in us entering an 'Age of Plastic'.

Jan Zalasiewicz, Professor of Palaeobiology from the University of Leicester's Department of Geology explained: "Plastics were more or less unknown to our grandparents, when they were children. But now, they are indispensible to our lives. They're everywhere - wrapping our food, being containers for our water and milk, providing cartons for eggs and yoghourt and chocolate, keeping our medicines sterile. They now make up most of the clothes that we wear, too.

"Plastics are also pretty well everywhere on Earth, from mountain tops to the deep ocean floor - and can be fossilized into the far future. We now make almost a billion tons of the stuff every three years. If all the plastic made in the last few decades was clingfilm, there would be enough to put a layer around the whole Earth. With current trends of production, there will be the equivalent of several more such layers by mid-century."

The study suggests that have such a long-lasting impact on the planet's geology because they are inert and hard to degrade. As a result, when plastics litter the landscape they become a part of the soil, often ending up in the sea and being consumed by and killing plankton, fish and seabirds.

Plastics can travel thousands of miles, caught up in the 'great oceanic garbage patches', or eventually being washed up on distant beaches. Plastics can eventually sink to the sea floor, to become a part of the strata of the future.

The rise of plastics since the mid-20th century, both as a material element of modern life and as a growing environmental pollutant, has been widely described. Their distribution in both the terrestrial and marine realms suggests that they are a key geological indicator of the Anthropocene, as a distinctive stratal component.

Professor Zalasiewicz added: "Plastics will continue to be input into the sedimentary cycle over coming millennia as temporary stores - landfill sites - are eroded. Plastics already enable fine time resolution within Anthropocene deposits via the development of their different types and via the artefacts, known as 'technofossils', they are moulded into, and many of these may have long-term preservation potential when buried in strata.

"Once buried, being so hard-wearing, plastics have a good chance to be fossilized - and leave a signal of the ultimate convenience material for many million years into the future. The age of plastic may really last for ages."

The study was carried out by an international team of scientists including the University of Leicester's Professors Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams and PhD student Yasmin Yonan from the Department of Geology and field archaeologist Dr Matt Edgeworth who is an Honorary Visiting Research Fellow from the School of Archaeology and Ancient History.

Dr Edgeworth said: "It may seem odd to think of plastics as archaeological and geological materials because they are so new, but we increasingly find them as inclusions in recent strata. Plastics make excellent stratigraphic markers."

In 2016 the Anthropocene Working Group led by Professor Jan Zalasiewicz will gather more evidence on the Anthropocene, which will help inform recommendations on whether this new time unit should be formalized and, if so, how it might be defined and characterized.

Colin Waters from the British Geological Survey, a co-author in the study, added: "We have become accustomed to living amongst plastic refuse, but it is the 'unseen' contribution of plastic microbeads from cosmetics and toothpaste or the artificial fibres washed from our clothes that are increasingly accumulating on sea and lake beds and perhaps have the greatest potential for leaving a lasting legacy in the geological record."

Explore further

The Anthropocene: Hard evidence for a human-driven Earth

More information: Jan Zalasiewicz et al. The geological cycle of plastics and their use as a stratigraphic indicator of the Anthropocene, Anthropocene (2016). DOI: 10.1016/j.ancene.2016.01.002
Citation: Human impact has created a 'plastic planet,' research shows (2016, January 27) retrieved 15 July 2019 from
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Jan 27, 2016
Oh, good God. How dramatic and overstatement can a study possibly be that it has to resort to cheap headline grabbing with phrases like "plastic planet". Eventually the powers that be able to come up with a more cost effective way to recycle plastic combined with laws which dramatically increase the penalties for not recycling and the plastic planet will be saved.

Jan 27, 2016
Human impact has created a 'plastic planet,' research shows


Jan 27, 2016
Bite me, shootist, you goddamned troll.

Debating these idiots is what gives us demagogues like Trump. More and more it's becoming accepted that one can have one's own set of facts.

Humans have modified the environment from the day they learned what an opposable thumb is good for (though Shootist and his ilk seem to have retasked it for pulling plums out and posting them). But that tiny, thin, tenuous belt of gas created by plants? We're having no effect on it at all!

How stupid do you have to be to not understand that? You judge a person by their enemies and by that account even the progressives on here are pretty pitiful. Kudos to those that ignore the paid trolling. Brickbats to those that think dignifying their tosh with an answer is helping anything.

Jan 27, 2016
Human impact has created a 'plastic planet,' research shows



Jan 27, 2016
If you think about it, the plastics accumulating isn't necessarily a bad thing for the environment. A billion tons every 3 years would be over a billion tons of CO2 if the plastic were burned for energy or if it where biodegradable.

It's a heretical thought, but biodegradable plastics means they get broken down and end up in the environment as water and carbon dioxide.

Our fossil fuels came from organic materials that accumulated over countless years. If we converted them to plastic and put them back in the ground we would be a lot closer to carbon neutral than biodegradable plastics . . .

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